Jayhawk Insider: Reaching new heights
By: Dayton Hammes
One long-standing school record. One facility record. The No. 2 mark in the NCAA. The No. 4 mark in the world.
Standing alone, these accomplishments are impressive, but accomplished by a freshman? Historic.
In 1983, senior Jeff Buckingham set the University of Kansas pole vault record at 5.76 meters (18-10.75 ft.), which was the American record at the time. After standing strong for 36 years, the historic record finally fell this year at the 92nd Kansas Relays when freshman Zach Bradford cleared 5.77 meters (18-11 ft.).
While achieving the KU record was always on the mind of the freshman, Bradford never thought it would happen during his first year as a Jayhawk.
“That first season, it’s just getting used to college – the workouts and class and school and making sure I’m able to take care of all of that,” Bradford said. “It was really just getting used to it. I wasn’t expecting any height.”
Expecting it or not, Bradford cleared 5.77 meters with ease on his second attempt at the bar, breaking one of KU’s longest-standing track & field records.
Although he may not have been expecting it, clearing the height was no fluke for the freshman from Bloomington, Illinois. Bradford broke both the indoor and outdoor school and state records in the pole vault during high school en route to eight Big Twelve Conference titles and six state championships.
He went on to win the New Balance National indoor championship and earned the title of USATF/AAU National Champion. The Kansas newcomer was the IAAF World U20 Championships runner-up in 2018 and named a three-time New Balance Nationals All-American from 2016-18.
Buckingham, who was a four-time All-American in the pole vault while he was at KU, received word of the broken record when he got a phone call from his former teammate and now Kansas track & field associate head coach, Tom Hays.
“I called him up and was like, ‘Jeff, I’ve got good news and bad news,'” Hays said. “The good news is you had the record for 36 years, the bad news is we took it.'”
With 42 Kansas All-Americans in the pole vault, it came as no surprise to Buckingham that the record had come down with KU’s history of success in pole vaulting.
“It’s a little sad to see it go down after having it for so long, but it wasn’t surprising – we have some really good vaulters,” Buckingham said.
Bradford has fit right in with Kansas’ historic pole vault program, opening his collegiate career with a fourth-place finish at the Big 12 Indoor Championships and First Team All-America honors after finishing fifth at the NCAA Indoor National Championships.
With KU’s history of successful pole vaulters, especially in recent years with 2018 NCAA Indoor national champion Hussain Al Hizam and 2010 NCAA outdoor national champion Jordan Scott, Hays strives for his athletes to not only have the athletic ability that Buckingham had, but also his character.
“The first thing that Buckingham said (when he found out about the record being broken) was ‘Congratulations,'” Hays said. “There’s not a classier guy than Jeff Buckingham. He’s what I want all of the guys to be like.”
Now that he has broken the KU record, Bradford has his sights set on a bar that Buckingham reached three times, the U.S. Olympic Trials.
“Making that 5.77 (meters), that was really big for me,” Bradford said. “I didn’t think that was going to happen, but now that it’s happened, the Olympic standard is 5.80 (meters). So that’s the next big goal: to make that (5.80) and to go to the trials for the Olympics in 2020.”
In order to make that next big jump, Bradford needs to continue getting stronger, faster and making adjustments where they’re needed. His young age, though, plays to his advantage.
“Being a freshman is an advantage because every day you’re still waking up with a different body, a newer body, you’re still growing, you’re still developing physically and you’re still adjusting to college loads of how much work we do,” Hays said.
As Bradford continues growing and gaining strength and speed there’s no limit to what he can accomplish.
“I’m not going to put a limit on him,” said Hays, who’s coached four pole vaulters to National Championships at KU. “He’s going to be one of the best around, so hopefully we do it in a way where he stays up there instead of doing it once and kind of comes down.”
With no limit on what fans can expect out of the freshman pole vaulter, Bradford can only go up from here.